BRIGHTON, Mass – What it came down to in the end was a gap between the vision Bruins management has for their franchise, and what Claude Julien is at the very core of his hockey coach being. If the Bruins were on track to getting into the playoffs this season or were showing real progress in key areas, then there’s no doubt Julien would have marched on toward completing his 10th full season behind the Boston bench.
But instead the B’s are on the outside of the playoff structure looking in coming out of last weekend’s ugly 6-5 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Julien paid the price getting fired on Tuesday morning with assistant Bruce Cassidy taking over as the interim coach. Clearly things were partially win-loss results-based after the Bruins missed the playoff cut with collapses in each of the last two seasons, and appear to be trending that way again this season.
There was a growing disconnect between Bruins management and their head coach in recent months, and had gotten to the point where Julien candidly admitted he wasn’t even getting reports on AHL players like Anton Khudobin when they were recalled from Providence. It seemed plain that the coach was being left out of the loop in many of the decisions being made by the brain trust, and that was a change from the Bruins glory years in the recent past.
As Sweeney said to the gathered media at Warrior Ice Arena on Tuesday afternoon, the Bruins GM wants to evaluate his players and see if they respond to a different coaching voice before making some big roster decisions following the season.
“It was not an easy decision [to fire Julien] in any way, shape, or form. In a lot of ways, people would say, well ‘Why can’t you just ride out the season?’ Well, I think the timing became an opportunity for us to evaluate going down the stretch, where these players are and how many of them can fit in to what we want to do going forward and the decisions that we have to make accordingly,” said Sweeney. “[We want to see] how players react to a different voice, and a direction change. I’m looking for alignment from top to bottom as to what our expectations are, from the players that have won to the players that are coming in
“I want to be in consult with the next coach of the Boston Bruins, while I am evaluating the current staff. I’ll have a list of [permanent head coach] candidates that will fall in line with what I am trying to do.”
Behind the scenes it sounds like there was a wide gap between the management group’s philosophy and a wildly successful, old school coach in Claude Julien. The Bruins are looking to fully embrace the new direction of the NHL that favors speed, skill, youth and aggressive offense guided by creativity and calculated risk-taking, and wants to continue developing the next generation of players looking to embrace that style.
Some of those younger players like Torey Krug and, this season, David Pastrnak had earned entry into the Claude Julien circle of trust, and 20-year-old Brandon Carlo has been afforded every opportunity to grow and develop while playing an important role for the Black and Gold. But with other young players like Ryan Spooner and Colin Miller, the progress has a bit more stop-and-start, and the trust from the head coach has been difficult to come by.
In general during times of stress or struggle, Julien would always dial back to a more conservative approach slowing things down and riding the players that he trusted most. That’s not to take away at all from Julien’s franchise-record 419 career wins behind the Bruins bench, the seven playoff appearances with Boston or the Stanley Cup title in 2011.
But Julien’s methods led to some frustration within some corners of the Bruins dressing room even if longtime B’s team leaders like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Zdeno Chara publicly and rightfully defended their fired head coach.
“[There was] complete frustration with his inability to adjust to the new game,” said one source familiar with the dynamic between Julien and his Bruins players. “His answer was always just work harder. If Rask didn’t stand on his head [the Bruins] weren’t winning.”
Sweeney admitted on Tuesday afternoon there were some philosophical differences between the GM and his head coach, and alluded to some of these issues when talking about what Cassidy could bring to the table as interim head coach.
“Butch has the tendency to have his practice at a high tempo. We’ll see if any of our players can respond to that in some areas. Defensively I don’t think we’ll deviate too much from the structure. I think there will be a few tweaks there,” said Sweeney. “Offensively, Butch was an offensive player. I think he sees the game and realizes that our power play got off to a slow start. But, it’s certainly turned the corner. He and the rest of the coaches have been working on that. I think he gravitates towards players that have a creative mind.
“Along with the fact that, I said, he doesn’t deviate from the structure and accountability-wise. He’s pretty black and white from a player’s perspective. Where you stand and what you’re bringing to the table, I think that will be something that he likes to meet with players and set the expectations. If it’s not going well in a game, he makes changes and makes adjustments. Then he wakes up that next day and realizes how that player will get better. He’s not carrying something over from the night before. He’s good that way.”
It certainly sounds like the kind of offensive tweaks that could cater to a number of Bruins players that have struggled this season from young guys like Spooner and Coin Miller to older, veteran players like David Krejci that have been noticeably subpar this season. That could be the kind of thing that would allow the Bruins to go on the kind of winning tear that’s eluded them all season, and ultimately cost Julien his job.
But the bottom line is this with the Bruins: They’re not going to change their fortune unless they start fighting to get closer to the net for their scoring chances, and improve their current standing as a nice possession team that settles for perimeter chances. They’re also not going to improve unless they cut down on some of the repeated gaffes they make in the defensive zone, and vastly improve the quality of play they’re getting this season from a group of lackluster backup goaltenders.
They're not going to improve unless they turn into a hard-working hockey club that consistently out-hustles their opponents, and is ready to play hard all three periods each and every game.
If Cassidy can’t find a way to mine improvement in some of those areas with the same cast of Bruins characters, then we’ll all end up wondering why the Bruins axed arguably the greatest coach in franchise history for change that never arrived.